Rhiannon Batten hits the byways of Blighty in search of old milestones, in this extract from Idler 80
THEN I SPOTTED it: a long, white-painted waymarker pointing to Bristol in one direction, Oldland, Siston, Mangotsfield and Frenchay on the other, and Bath between the two, all with a dainty, frill-cuffed hand, one finger elegantly extended.
I wasn’t on a typical rambling circuit, linking up public footpaths around a given destination or landmark. I was on a Highways Heritage Walk, designed by members of the Milestone Society to help publicise its work – and to celebrate some of the stellar signs among the 9,000 or so milestones (117 of them Roman) still standing across the UK.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the society is a charitable organisation that aims, with the help of its volunteer supporters and members, to “identify, record, research, conserve and interpret for public benefit the milestones and other waymarkers of the British Isles”.
Over the years its remit has expanded to take in tollhouses, turnpike history, stone crosses and canal milestones.
Members’ current projects even stretch to locating a series of 18th-century mounting stones (blocks carved into mini staircases, each with three steps), which were used by riders to mount their horses. Documents tell of them having been placed along a stretch of Ermine Street by one “very corpulent” Edmund Boulter in 1708, who travelled the route every week.
I’d come across the Milestone Society by chance after noticing a cast-iron signpost a few metres along the road from my house. It piqued my interest and a quick internet search brought me the unexpected delight of their website – a whole society dedicated to British road heritage, which has catalogued more than 30,000 items (now locatable on geography.org.uk).
Delving further into the site, I found a series of downloadable walking trails, organised by region. The thought of making these old (often ancient) milestones and signposts the focus of a walk rather than just pointers to other places, was intriguing, and a fittingly idler-friendly pursuit.
A click or two later, printed directions in my hand, and I was in Bitton, discovering that first elongated waymarker….